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The Festival Interview: David Lappin & Dara O’Kearney  

The Festival Interview: David Lappin & Dara O’Kearney  

In their award-winning podcast, The Chip Race, David Lappin and Dara O’Kearney have had all manner of guests over the years. Here at The Festival, we’ve been lucky enough to briefly switch roles with the poker world’s dynamic duo, as they have kindly taken time away from their busy schedules to answer a few questions and wax lyrical about poker and even – with their Unibet connection to World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen in mind – their exploits (of sorts...) in chess!  

Chances are that if you’ve played at Unibet you’ll be aware of David and Dara’s roles around the globe as Poker Ambassadors, and you, too, could get a taste of the delights of major festival poker by taking advantage of Unibet’s bankroll-friendly The Festival Bratislava qualifiers. Up for grabs via Unibet’s regular satellites are both €550 tickets for the €500,000 GTD Main Event and €1,300 packages that include the Main Event buy-in, 5 nights for two at the Crowne Plaza or AC Hotel Bratislava (11-16 October) and €225 travel expenses credited to your Unibet account! Click here for details.

The Interview

(The Festival) How did you first get into poker, and what’s your involvement in the game today?

  • (David Lappin) I was writing a TV show about a poker player and, to research the character, I started playing more frequently, both live and online. The show got cancelled but I ended up turning myself into my character. I have been playing for almost 17 years and I have been a Unibet Poker Global Ambassador for six years. Apart from playing, I host and produce a podcast ‘The Chip Race’ with Dara.
  • (Dara O'Kearney) I have always done something competitively. In my youth I played chess and bridge, and in my 30s running took over. As my running career wound down in my early 40s I was looking for something else where age wouldn't be that big a factor, and I saw poker on TV one night and that seemed to fit the bill. My brother was living with us at the time and he already played, so he taught me the rudiments and I went from there. Within a year I was making more from online poker so I went full-time and have been for the past 14 years.

(TF) How did you meet and subsequently team up?

  • (David) Dara and I met at the Irish Open in 2011, although Dara remembers us being at the same table in the Fitzwilliam Casino in Dublin a few months before that. We hit it off right away and became close friends, co-stakers of a group of players and then later working on creative projects together.
  • (Dara) We met when David moved back from the US about ten years ago. He was an obnoxious p***k the Irish community immediately reviled, so I decided someone had to take him under his wing, and took on the task. We quickly became friends and started working together almost immediately, staking players. The Chip Race followed a few years later.

(TF) What do you get up to away from poker?

  • (David) Lots of family time these days, but I also make plenty of time for friends. I love to travel so I usually add days onto each poker trip to see the places on the various tours. I’m an avid film and TV viewer, and I still read lots of philosophy, which is the subject I studied in college.
  • (Dara) Not much, I'm still pretty all in on poker. I watch Netflix with my wife and still run six days a week.

(TF) The Chip Race, and your collective social media presence generally, must be quite time-consuming. To what extent has the amount of poker you’ve played (particularly live) declined over the years, and has your game suffered due to work commitments? Do you wish you could play at more events?

  • (David) Every year, Dara and I talk about how we are going to play less live poker but it never really happens. We still both play 100+ tournaments each year. For me, online poker has cut in half since The Chip Race and other ambassador/poker media responsibilities entered the fray. I used to play 50 hours per week and now some weeks it is as little as 20. What has actually gone up, though, is time spent studying. I feel like that is more important than ever if you are going to stay sharp.
  • (Dara) I play about the amount of live poker I want to, but online has definitely suffered. I love all the other stuff I do, but I'd be lying if I said I don’t sometimes regret not being able to play as much online as I used to (it's still my favourite); the other thing that suffers is study time. Part of me wonders how good I could get if I just devoted myself full-time to playing online and studying.

(TF) Your reputations afford you considerable status in the poker world to the point that you’re almost expected to share an opinion about all aspects of the game - how do you navigate this potential minefield when it comes to serious and often emotive subject matter?

  • (David) Emotive subject matter is not a problem. It just means people care, so I don’t consider that to be a minefield. However, I do pick and choose what to write about/comment on. I have strong opinions on how the poker industry ought to treat players and I rarely refrain from fighting those battles. I demur in the face of some - if admittedly not all - of the more gossipy topics.
  • (Dara) I think we are a little different in this regard. David is a lot happier to state strong opinions and offend people. I'm a bit more reticent: I need to be convinced my opinion is actually adding something to the conversation rather than just an opinion. Weirdly, though, if I do go out on a limb and express a vehement opinion, it often upsets a lot more people than when David does, maybe because it's less expected of me. But when I have a very strongly held opinion I don't hold back.
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(TF) Regarding women in poker, while there have been improvements on this front in recent years, there is, of course, still a way to go. Do you have any thoughts as to how the game could be presented/organised in a way that might make it more of an attractive prospect?

  • (David) Some progress has been made on this front but it is also true that there are relapses far too often. Individually, we can all do better to make the poker space more inclusive, but marketing is also a big factor. It is still pitiful how the game is sold to women, from patronising promotional campaigns that infantilise women to outright misogyny by some ambassadors putting people off. I applaud much of the work being done by various fantastic women’s advocacy groups, but I also worry that some of them go about it in a way that further marginalises women in the game.
  • (Dara) I think there needs to be less tolerance of "men behaving badly". I also think more thought needs to be put into how to attract women of different types in different ways. The standard approach of hosting ladies' events and selling it as a purely social thing is one prong, but only one. There's sometimes a sense that women are encouraged simply to take part and be social, rather than be competitive. As such, I think groups like Herzdamen and Poker Power, which focus on strategy and helping women to become stronger, more competitive players, are an exciting development. I feel if poker were presented as something where women compete equally with men, and there were more role models of genuine female crushers, this could be more effective than simply presenting it as something where there's a female minority, roped off in their own groups and ladies' events.

(TF) Luck in poker... In a tournament a few years ago I tossed a coin in my head to decide against mixing it up with 6h 4h… The Flop came 2h 3h 5h (🙄) and David went on to win a massive multi-way pot. As David sorted out the pile of chips I mentioned the 50-50 and it hit us how both our tournaments could have been so drastically different as a result of pure chance. How do you reconcile the game’s sometimes cruel luck element, particularly when the stakes/occasion have considerable significance? What advice would you give players on how to best maintain an even emotional keel?

  • (David) Variance is a bitch, but the important thing to remember is that, without it, weaker players would lose every time and quickly give up. Luck is baked into the cake of poker.
  • (Dara) I think you have to recognize luck in all its guises, not just all-in equity or coolers, and also realise it's outside your control and therefore not worth thinking about. My running coach used to say that weather is one of the things that affects all your races the most, but since you can do nothing about it and it's the same for everyone, it's ultimately unimportant - all that matters is how you react to it. I feel the same is true of luck in poker - it's just weather. 

(TF) The Festival’s schedule has Cash Games running alongside the roster of tournaments. What’s your opinion about playing both formats - does it improve your game by broadening your horizons, or could it be detrimental?

  • (David) To be honest, I play very little cash, although The Cash Game Festival was one place where I have jumped in. In fact, I have a Cash Game trophy. It is particularly fun when there’s a livestream set-up. Cash poker definitely improves your deep-stack play, so it is most transferable in the early levels of tournaments.
  • (Dara) I personally am a {tournament} specialist. I think there are merits to both, but the strongest players in both formats are the specialists. Again, to use an athletics analogy, decathletes might be the best all round athletes, but in any individual discipline they'll be less able than the specialists.

(TF) As for (tournament) poker variants, the Sviten Special continues to prove a hit. What advice would you give players who thus far play only No Limit Hold’em tournaments (for example) about trying out other variants?

  • (David) My advice is if you are going to dabble in Sviten, stay away from Franke. He’s a fish in all the other games but he wrecked me one night at Sviten in a shameless bit of bum-hunting.
  • (Dara) I'd advise them to ask someone who knows about mixed games rather than listening to me, who doesn't...

(TF) The Festival’s casino games and sports betting competitions tap into what many would consider quite natural additional interests of poker players. Given the time you’ve spent in a casino/betting environment, do you have any experience with the likes of Blackjack or sports betting?  

  • (David) I know basic blackjack strategy and I can do some rudimentary card-counting, but the truth is that bar the occasional bet on politics or the Oscars, I don’t play casino games or bet on sports. I do think that these are a fun innovation from The Festival, though, and I imagine them creating a fun party atmosphere in the room.  
  • (Dara) I briefly was a full-time sports bettor in the early 90s, and it's something I've dabbled in from a young age. My big thing is that gambling for the sake of gambling itself holds no interest for me: I need to at least believe I have an edge. 

(TF) Unibet has an association with World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen, who - along with his friends and trainers - has more than just a keen interest in poker. Do you play chess, and if so, who’s the better player?  

  • (David) Dara is a proper chess player so he’s going to groan when I tell this story that I often trot out… I once beat an International Master at chess! The thing is I was 8 years old at the time and he was 7. He went on to play a great many games after that day, and, alas, I have played very little. Still, a win is a win! {Interviewer’s note: The said International Master is currently the highest ranked chess player in Ireland...} 
  • (Dara) I played quite a bit in my teens and early 20s. I think I peaked at around 2000 ELO ‘over the board’ and 2200 at correspondence (I even played an international for Great Britain against Finland, where I made up the numbers as board 50 of 50). I still enjoy the game but I lost interest when I realised I'd plateaued. I played in a mixed poker/chess tourney in the Isle of Man. In the chess section I comfortably defeated all the poker players, and was thrashed by all the chess players, including my friend Almira Skripchenko {Interviewer’s note: a class poker player and a chess Grandmaster} who graciously exaggerated my performance afterwards. 

(TF) Future poker plans/goals etc. 

  • (David) I’d love to win a bracelet or an Irish Open. Of course, I would also like to win a Unibet Open. My best result is 4th.  
  • (Dara) Nothing specific, just to keep doing what I'm doing for as long as possible. 

These are fitting words with which to end – we all love poker, and at The Festival we strive to give poker fans the opportunity to make the most of this fascinating game, and the opportunities it brings...